Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"Two faces of persecution" - Salah Choudhury & Maher Arar (Terry Glavin)

Without support, Bangladeshi Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury (left) risks prison or death—a far cry from CanWest’s ordeal over coverage of Maher Arar’s deportation.
The journalist & blogger Terry Glavin, writing from Canada, reminds us of some concrete reasons why freedom of the press in particular and freedom of expression in general are principles worth defending--but he also reminds us that they mean very little in practice unless people who enjoy freedom of expression are willing to use it to expose and protest against repression and injustice. Here's the heart of his piece:

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Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is a Bangladeshi journalist. [JW: see here & here & here] He’s the editor of the weekly newspaper the Blitz. You’ve probably never heard of him. Even in Dacca, the only journalism he’s really known for is a thin portfolio of essays that counsel peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

Juliet O’Neill is a Canadian journalist. I’m sure you’ve heard of her. She’s a seasoned reporter with the Ottawa Citizen. She’s most famous for having had her home raided two years ago by RCMP officers who confiscated notes, files, and computer disks, hoping to discover the identity of certain high-level intelligence-agency sources she’d been relying on for some blockbuster front-page stories. [....]

Choudhury’s newspaper was bombed last summer. Early this month, extremist thugs raided and looted the newspaper offices and Choudhury was beaten and robbed. Denied police protection, Choudhury went into hiding. On October 12, he emerged long enough to appear in court on charges that carry a sentence of up to 30 years imprisonment or death.

A week after Choudhury’s court appearance in Dacca, the Ontario Superior Court handed down a decision that sided with O’Neill in a court challenge her newspaper had waged against the constitutional legitimacy of the RCMP raid on O’Neill’s house. The Ottawa Citizen heralded its court victory with a headline taken directly from the reaction uttered by David Asper, the vice president of CanWest Global, which owns the Citizen and dozens of other major Canadian media properties: “The Brute Force of the State Met Its Match”.

[But the case of Juliet O'Neill and the Ottowa Citizen is not the right analogy for Choudhury's case. --JW] The only Canadian case that comes close to Choudhury’s suffering is the agony of Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian engineer whose story looms over everything the O’Neill court case was about.

After certain RCMP officials provided American authorities with false information implicating Arar in terrorist activity, Arar was picked up while changing planes in New York in 2002. He was sent on to Damascus, where he was brutally tortured and kept in solitary confinement for much of the year he spent in prison there.

Choudhury’s troubles began around the same time. His brave work started getting him noticed outside Bangladesh, and he was invited to speak at a Hebrew Writers’ Association conference in Israel in 2003. He was arrested at the airport in Dacca before he could board his plane. He was jailed on charges of sedition and espionage, beaten, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for 16 months.

It was only after an international public outcry—mainly in the United States, where he was honoured with a PEN USA Freedom to Write Award [JW: see here]—that Choudhury was released. But the phony charges against him were recently revived by a notorious Islamist judge, and it’s on those charges that Choudhury’s trial resumes next month.

It was also only after a public outcry, here in Canada, that Syrian authorities agreed to let Arar come home to Canada, in 2003. But rogue elements within the RCMP, hoping to cover their tracks in the case, immediately revived their smear campaign against Arar. They fed O’Neill and other journalists the most vicious and outrageous lies about him. Finding out who those rogues were was the main reason the RCMP raided O’Neill’s house two years ago.

Last month, the commission of inquiry into the Arar affair—the analysis and recommendations section alone is 376 pages long—found that there never was a shred of evidence against him after all. No secret al-Qaeda code name, no time spent in Afghan desert training camps, no facilitation of terrorism- logistics work in and around Ottawa, nothing. None of those things you read about Arar in the newspapers was true. [....]

We all make mistakes. I don’t claim to be braver than Juliet O’Neill, and I make no charge of bad faith against her. The Georgia Straight is no braver than the Ottawa Citizen, either. We don’t need to be. Life is easy here. This is Canada. It’s not, say, Bangladesh, where 12 journalists have been murdered during the past four years, and where the dark shadow of Islamist extremism grows longer by the hour.

There is one small thing we might all do, though, to redeem the tawdriness of our vocation in this country, as an act of contrition for Maher Arar. Given its reach, CanWest Global could be particularly helpful in that one small thing.

It’s in the matter of a brave, 43-year-old journalist, with failing eyesight, who lives in fear for his life, as I write this, in Dacca, Bangladesh. The last time he was in trouble, it was an international public outcry that got him out of jail.

His name is Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.
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=> Canadians are not the only ones who should respond to this eloquent appeal. Choudhury's case ought to concern all of us. I put it this way in a recent post of my own (Freedom of the press under attack - Bangladeshi journalist Salah Choudhury faces the death penalty):
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This is not just a tale of woe, but also a call to action.Over the past decade there have been several significant cases involving the persecution, arrest, and/or or prosecution of writers and intellectuals where international attention has helped to avert, or at least moderate, unjust and repressive outcomes. [....] International response to these cases, and international solidarity with the victims, are obviously very important to help preserve some space for freedom of expression and to encourage possibilities for political liberty and political sanity.

The case of the outspoken Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, now on trial facing a trumped-up charge of treason with a possible death penalty, is another important challenge of this sort. [....] He has faced years of persecution, including physical attacks and death threats as well as criminal prosecution, for his 'crimes' of criticizing Islamist radicalism and advocating reconciliation with Christians, Jews, and Israel. [....]

Choudhury was awarded the PEN-USA Freedom to Write Award in 2005, and his cause has been taken up by Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN. Their statement of October 10 [here] urges that everyone committed to freedom of expression should:

Send appeals to authorities:
- expressing serious concerns for the safety of journalist Salah Uddin Choudhury
- calling for him to be provided with immediate and effective police protection
- protesting the charges against Choudhury and calling for them to be dropped in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights [....]
However, this case is still not getting nearly the attention that it deserves. It seems to me that Choudhury's cause is one that all people who support the principles of political and intellectual freedom and who would like to defend possibilities for democracy, political sanity, and constructive international dialogue should be especially interested in taking up. And the reasons go beyond the obvious threat to freedom of the press and free expression that this case represents, though these should be sufficient. Journalists in the Muslim world who are willing to stick their necks out to take positions like Choudhury's are not entirely non-existent, but they're not very numerous either, and they take especially great risks when they do this. If they're going to get their necks cut off for it, then all of us will be losers. They deserve strong and principled support. [.....]

Therefore, along with International PEN and others, I strongly urge people to spread the word about this case and to write to the Bangladeshi government expressing their concern. [....]
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For further information and some relevant addresses, see HERE.

Yours for freedom of expression and democratic solidarity,
Jeff Weintraub
====================
Georgia Straight
October 26, 2006
Two faces of persecution
By Terry Glavin

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is a Bangladeshi journalist. He’s the editor of the weekly newspaper the Blitz. You’ve probably never heard of him. Even in Dacca, the only journalism he’s really known for is a thin portfolio of essays that counsel peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

Juliet O’Neill is a Canadian journalist. I’m sure you’ve heard of her. She’s a seasoned reporter with the Ottawa Citizen. She’s most famous for having had her home raided two years ago by RCMP officers who confiscated notes, files, and computer disks, hoping to discover the identity of certain high-level intelligence-agency sources she’d been relying on for some blockbuster front-page stories.

If Choudhury and O’Neill were ever to find themselves competing for a bravery-in-journalism prize, O’Neill would lose. Hands down.

Choudhury’s newspaper was bombed last summer. Early this month, extremist thugs raided and looted the newspaper offices and Choudhury was beaten and robbed. Denied police protection, Choudhury went into hiding. On October 12, he emerged long enough to appear in court on charges that carry a sentence of up to 30 years imprisonment or death.

A week after Choudhury’s court appearance in Dacca, the Ontario Superior Court handed down a decision that sided with O’Neill in a court challenge her newspaper had waged against the constitutional legitimacy of the RCMP raid on O’Neill’s house. The Ottawa Citizen heralded its court victory with a headline taken directly from the reaction uttered by David Asper, the vice president of CanWest Global, which owns the Citizen and dozens of other major Canadian media properties: “The Brute Force of the State Met Its Match”.

The only Canadian case that comes close to Choudhury’s suffering is the agony of Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian engineer whose story looms over everything the O’Neill court case was about.

After certain RCMP officials provided American authorities with false information implicating Arar in terrorist activity, Arar was picked up while changing planes in New York in 2002. He was sent on to Damascus, where he was brutally tortured and kept in solitary confinement for much of the year he spent in prison there.

Choudhury’s troubles began around the same time. His brave work started getting him noticed outside Bangladesh, and he was invited to speak at a Hebrew Writers’ Association conference in Israel in 2003. He was arrested at the airport in Dacca before he could board his plane. He was jailed on charges of sedition and espionage, beaten, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for 16 months.

It was only after an international public outcry—mainly in the United States, where he was honoured with a PEN USA Freedom to Write Award—that Choudhury was released. But the phony charges against him were recently revived by a notorious Islamist judge, and it’s on those charges that Choudhury’s trial resumes next month.

It was also only after a public outcry, here in Canada, that Syrian authorities agreed to let Arar come home to Canada, in 2003. But rogue elements within the RCMP, hoping to cover their tracks in the case, immediately revived their smear campaign against Arar. They fed O’Neill and other journalists the most vicious and outrageous lies about him. Finding out who those rogues were was the main reason the RCMP raided O’Neill’s house two years ago.

Last month, the commission of inquiry into the Arar affair—the analysis and recommendations section alone is 376 pages long—found that there never was a shred of evidence against him after all. No secret al-Qaeda code name, no time spent in Afghan desert training camps, no facilitation of terrorism- logistics work in and around Ottawa, nothing. None of those things you read about Arar in the newspapers was true.

But Justice Dennis O’Connor didn’t just lay the blame for Arar’s destroyed reputation at the feet of rogue Mounties. O’Connor’s report is just as scathing about those same Canadian journalists who now crow about their valiant defiance of the “brute force” of the Canadian state in the Arar case. Their court challenge was all about defending their right to continue hiding the identities of the cops who told all those lies and caused Arar such suffering to begin with.

We all make mistakes. I don’t claim to be braver than Juliet O’Neill, and I make no charge of bad faith against her. The Georgia Straight is no braver than the Ottawa Citizen, either. We don’t need to be. Life is easy here. This is Canada. It’s not, say, Bangladesh, where 12 journalists have been murdered during the past four years, and where the dark shadow of Islamist extremism grows longer by the hour.

There is one small thing we might all do, though, to redeem the tawdriness of our vocation in this country, as an act of contrition for Maher Arar. Given its reach, CanWest Global could be particularly helpful in that one small thing.

It’s in the matter of a brave, 43-year-old journalist, with failing eyesight, who lives in fear for his life, as I write this, in Dacca, Bangladesh. The last time he was in trouble, it was an international public outcry that got him out of jail.

His name is Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.

The Chronicles blog can be found at transmontanus.blogspot.com/

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